Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A look back at 2009

What a difference a year makes

It’s time to bid farewell to 2009 and not a moment too soon. This was a year to remember and forget.

The year began with an attempt to spread a shroud of repression over all county government operations. This included threats of immediate termination for any county employee who spoke to a supervisor without the knowledge and permission of the county administrator.

This followed revelations of as many as four years of incomprehensible mismanagement in the public utilities department.

By the end of January, the county administrator had a sudden urge to retire and followed Elvis out of the building and was allegedly feted at several retirement parties.

The consequences of his administration will affect the county for a long time.

The Tuckahoe Creek Service District, created to attract economic development to the eastern end of the county has become like a toothache that will not go away.

The wayward check matter was the tip of the iceberg for TCSD issues. During the 2009 county budget process, it was discovered that routine utility maintenance costs were never factored into rate computations. The dearth of customers for sewer service is expected to result in significant rate increases going forward.

In mid-December, a section of the fiber reinforced pipe used for the sewer force main, which was the subject of costly litigation, shredded like a piƱata in the rain spewing raw sewage along River Road across from the entrance to Randolph Square. Repair costs are not covered by insurance.

A narrowly focused forensic audit of the utilities department revealed no evidence of criminal activity. A countywide comprehensive audit, whose results are expected by February, will paint a clear picture of past county operations and include suggestions for improvement.

Rebecca T. Dickson was sworn in as Goochland County administrator on July 20. She rolled up her sleeves and got right to work trying to clean up the mess. She knows her stuff and, if given full support by the supervisors, will bring Goochland up to speed. The process will be painful and messy, but well worth the result.

In May, the supervisors “requested and received” the resignation of the county attorney.

Norman Sales, the highly experienced and well-qualified former city attorney for Richmond, will take over that key position on January 18, 2010.

The most significant change in 2009 was an enthusiastic increase in public expression of citizen concern about the manner in which our county is run.

Supervisors’ meetings in the early part of the year were attended by standing room only crowds that listened to what was said and made it clear that they were not buying the carefully crafted, but absurd, contentions put forward by the old regime.

The supervisors realized that their constituents were paying attention and have changed their tune.

These same citizens let the board know that they preferred a local pharmacy when rumors that Walgreen’s wanted to buy the Fairgrounds property. The supervisors decided to take a pass on the sale of that parcel and the county kept a valued small business.

Citizen made thoughtful and constructive comments about land use issues that included rezoning and a proposed recreation master plan. They turned out in large numbers for community meetings and public hearings. Though some were discouraged that they did not win the day, their involvement put developers and county officials on notice.

Goochlanders are finally paying attention and demanding accountability and transparency in government.

A good first step was the inclusion of check registers for both the county and school system on the Goochland website Take a look and see where your tax dollars go.

The meltdown in the financial sector plagued the county in many ways.

A dramatic decline in property values is translating into far less real estate tax revenue to fund county services. The grim reality of drastically smaller budgets is just coming into focus and underlining the importance of meaningful economic development.

High methane levels from the closed landfill under Hidden Rock Park cancelled the spring soccer season for many county kids. Installation of a new venting and monitoring system made it safe by the fall season.

The Hidden Rock Park debacle motivated the supervisors to begin work on a new soccer complex near the high school. While it won’t be ready for play for a while, the new soccer field was the site of the Fourth of July fireworks, which could be viewed from many locations throughout Courthouse Village. This move eliminated the traffic bottleneck and other safety concerns at the park, which only has one entrance.

Goochland’s other new public space, Tucker Park at Maidens Landing, will finally give county residents access to the James River. This park will be developed under the auspices of a public/private task force, a concept with much promise.

We had no hurricanes in 2009, but heavy snows on March 1 and the week before Christmas kept us aware of who is in charge. Our deputies and fire-rescue volunteers did an outstanding job in the emergencies, guided by the terrific, and all too often unsung, team in Goochland dispatch who keep them all on track.

Our sports teams made us proud, but not enough to justify the cost of a helicopter to dry off the football field, no matter who picked up the tab.

The school board continued true to form by rubber stamping the superintendent’s proposed school budget without asking the hard questions. Education is an expensive business and Goochland has good schools. There’s just not enough information available to judge if the proposed expenditures are justified or fluff.

Rumors of county-funded IPhones and IPods, and justification for all of the employees in the central office need clarification.

Parents are putting on their critical thinking caps and questioning information put out, often through rumor, by the superintendent and the school board. They’ve stopped acting like automatons deployed to terrorize the supervisors at budget time. Parents and taxpayers have a right to detailed information about the expenditure of public money.

We can only hope that the results of the comprehensive audit, which included the schools, shed some light on this.

Goochland may be on the right track after many years of wandering in the wilderness. Here’s to a healthy and prosperous 2010.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

I mean no disrespect

It’s that awkward time of year again. Not that long ago, we wished each other Merry Christmas, or perhaps Happy Hanukah or Kwanza.

Schools had Christmas concerts and vacations. There were lots of manger scenes in public places and no one thought much about it.

Somewhere along the way, the political correctness movement arrived and now we’re so afraid of offending some nameless person, that we mumble meaningless gibberish like happy holidays or season’s greetings. Those catch phrases have become knee jerk faux manners, often with as much sincerity as the air kisses politicians and celebrities aim at each other.

Generic well wishes should offend everyone regardless of how, or if, they mark the season.

One of America’s strengths is that we are a melting pot of cultures, a mongrel race thriving with hybrid vigor. For the most part, we’ve learned to live side by side with people who do things differently than we do with mutual respect.

Unlike Northern Ireland or the Balkans, for instance, we don’t kill people who practice different religions, or no religion at all. Our military has chaplains for many faiths. Al Qaeda probably has no Christian or Jewish chaplains.

For all of our pretended sophistication, at heart we’re primitives worried that the sun will disappear as the days grow shorter regardless of the global warming nonsense.

The dark days of the year touch something primordial in our beings. We need to celebrate and praise a higher power as the days begin to lengthen by minutes. What better excuse than to celebrate the birth of a savior?

Our modern Christmas culture is an amalgam of customs. The inclusion of pagan practices into Christian ritual is perhaps the most effective marketing campaign of all times.

Mistletoe, for instance, was sacred to the Druids who ruled the forests of Britain before the Romans arrived. (Rumor has it that there are some Druids in the Gum Spring/Sandy Hook part of Goochland County who harvest and sell local mistletoe in December.)

Christians adopted mistletoe when converts refused to abandon its use. There is something miraculous about a plant that grows green and flourishes at the top of dormant oak trees in the dead of winter.

Science tells us that mistletoe is a parasitic plant whose roots creep beneath the tree bark to steal nourishment. Its seeds are planted by birds who eat the berries and rub a sticky binder off of their beaks while sitting in the tree tops. Not all that mysterious, but why go to all that trouble for a plant?

Perhaps that is God’s way of planting seeds of belief in powers far greater than man’s intellect. As we grew more sophisticated, we held to our beliefs because, well, there’s no rational explanation for the existence of something like mistletoe.

Once they decided to end the ban on Mistletoe, the early Christians adopted it in a big way. Some even contended that the true cross was made out of mistletoe wood.

A hearty Merry Christmas is the ultimate love bomb. Why are people offended when someone wishes them, literally, everything that is goodness, peace, redemption and hope? Hold fast to this traditional greeting and make sure it lasts throughout the 21st century.

Merry Christmas to all!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Grinch after Christmas

School board abdicates responsibility

Happily, Goochland is replete with dogs and ponies. They will all get a good workout before the coming painful budget process is complete.

With the release of the proposed school budget for fiscal year 2010-11 on December 14 the school board indicated that it will follow its practice of past years by laying the blame for school budget cuts on the board of supervisors.

On Tuesday December 15, the school board held the first of several public hearings on next year’s proposed school budget, which was posted on the school website only the day before the hearing.

Held in the high school auditorium, the hearing attracted about 75 people including school officials; law enforcement; interested citizens and a handful of concerned parents.

Expected revenue shortfalls for the fiscal 2010-11 county budget are no surprise. County administrator Rebecca T. Dickson publicly informed the school board last fall that significantly less money will be available in the next budget cycle. She asked the school board to trim $2.7 million dollars from its spending plans.

The proposed budget is $25,339,366 versus last year’s $26,090,510, a reduction of $756,744.

Exacerbating the whole process is the delay in information about the magnitude of reduction in state funding. The good news there, if there is any, for Goochland is that we get only about 20 percent of our operating needs from state funds.

School board chairman Raymond Miller, District 2 read a prepared statement at the start of the meeting. This is available in its entirety on the school website.

Miller’s carefully scripted remarks ignored specific questions posed by parents at previous meetings. School superintendent Dr. Linda Underwood listed the strategies used to reduce the proposed 2010-11 budget.

These included eliminating the high school receptionist position and the Tender Tots program. Using attrition rather than lay offs to reduce the number of teachers. Contract employees who work more than 200 days per year will take two days of unpaid furlough. Underwood also said that the budget included a 12 percent increase in the cost of health insurance.

Only three people spoke during the public hearing.

Jo D. Hosken, a parent, observed that the current revenue shortfall puts a terrible burden on everyone. She said that better and more open lines of communication between the school board and parents are needed to enable them to work together to find compromise solutions. Hosken contended that there are many competent professionals in Goochland ready to pull together in “any way, shape or form” to find workable solutions to the fiscal challenges. Her comments fell on deaf ears.

Jane Christie, another parent, asked why the athletic coaching budget (line items 217 and 218) had been increased by about $150,000. She also wanted to know why the administrative staff was reduced by one percent while the instructional staff was cut five.

In some parts of the world, when money for schools is tight, the first item to be sliced from the budget is athletics.

In spite of all the exhortations that children need to be more active, just how many students participate in those athletic programs or are they reserved for a small elite? If that is the case, perhaps the athletic program could be funded by private sources.

Maybe the generous donors who paid to have a helicopter dry off the football field would be willing to cover the cost of the coaching staff.

Although Underwood has commented often that significant increases in health insurance costs have further complicated crafting the budget those increases are not clearly outlined in the proposed budget.

Christie asked why, if it is such an important issue, health insurance is not itemized in the proposed budget. It seems to be part of the broad category titled salaries and benefits for a total of $16,162,528 versus $16,945,899 in the current year’s budget (line item 8.)

Seeking to clarify one of the many budget rumors, Christie wanted to know if the health insurance premiums are expected to increase to $1 million or by $1 million.

Miller asked for questions in writing. Christie may get a personal written response, but that kind of information should be posted on the website.

Addressing other budget rumors, Christie asked why positions at the Maggie L, Walker Governor’s School, at approximately $8,000 annually per student were ever considered for elimination when the county spends about $10,894 annually per student. At that rate, why isn’t the county trying to send more students there?

The proposed budget indicates that about $130,000 is spent on summer school (line items 102,107,111,113,135,395 and 412) not including electricity. How many students attend summer school and is it a cost effective program?

Underwood contended that increases in water and sewer $2,250, (line item 457;) heat $45,000(line item 456) and electricity $33,630 (line item 455) were significant, yet together are less than the jump in the cost of the coaching staff.

The proposed school budget is not “a responsible budget to move Goochland forward” as Miller said in his remarks. Rather, it displays arrogant disregard for the fiscal realties of the times and blatant refusal on the part of the school board to operate in a transparent manner.

The next public hearing on next year’s proposed school budget will be held on Tuesday, January 12, 2010.

Please look at the proposed school budget and draw your own conclusions about the way our tax dollars are being used. A secret decoder ring should not be needed to decipher the school budget.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Good reasons and real reasons

More churches for Goochland

Goochland has been called God’s county perhaps because there are so many churches here. Two more are on the way.

The Goochland planning commission recommended approval of an application for a conditional use permit filed by Springfield Baptist Church to build a church on an approximately nine acre parcel of land on the east side of Manakin Road just south of Interstate 64. The 8-2 vote —James Atkinson District 1 and Ty Querry District 2 in dissent— came after nearly two hours of public hearing on December 10.

The board of supervisors, expected to vote on the application at its February 2010 meeting, will have the final word on the matter.

Allegedly at issue was the appropriateness of the project for the location. Sadly, in this season of peace on earth, the goodwill to all seems to have translated into goodwill to all as long as they look like me.

Nearby residents trotted out the usual objections to rezoning applications. These include increased traffic, threats to ground water supplies and a building not in keeping with the rural character of the area.

The cemetery on the property was addressed in the application. No one mentioned a deleterious effect on seasonal bird migration.

If every one of the 200 members of Springfield Church uses the bathroom once on Sunday, the church will use about 32O gallons of water. The average home uses about 400 gallons of water every day.

Had Springfield Church kept the size of the proposed building under 10,000 square feet, there would have been no need for the hearing or permit.

Wanting to be open and above board about their intentions, the good folks of Springfield presented the county with a comprehensive master plan for the property looking well into the future. This included an eventual church far larger than the 10,500 square foot phase I structure presented in December. The square footage will be doubled when the congregation has the funds to finish the basement.

Currently, the congregation of Springfield Baptist Church is homeless. Short Pump development gobbled up the site where their church stood for more than a century. That building is now on the Field Day of the Past show grounds on Ashland Road in Centerville.

Although most members of Springfield Church live in Henrico County, their roots are in Goochland.

Detractors pointed out that because the members do not live in Goochland, the church should not be here. They contended that the presence of Springfield Church would exacerbate the burden on law enforcement and fire-rescue volunteers.

Those detractors, many relatively new to the county, seemed unaware that a significant number of the Centerville fire-rescue volunteers, who respond when they call 911, do not live in Goochland either.

Opponents of the project seemed to believe that a 24/7 mega church was to be planted in their midst. In reality, the congregation has about 200 members who plan to worship on Sunday morning and one night midweek.

District 4 planning commissioner Bob Rich, who lives on Rockford Road and travels Manakin Road every day characterized the traffic complaints as a “red herring.”

According to VDOT studies, the traffic count on Manakin Road between Seay Road and Rt. 250, said Rich, is 1,900 vehicles per day. Springfield Church would add les than two percent to that number. The intersection of Manakin Road and Rt. 250 is a mess during weekday rush hour. The members of Springfield Church will not add to that problem with their Sunday morning use of the road.

Rich said he believes that the church is a perfect fit for that parcel of land, which is not suitable for residential use, and that he looks forward to seeing the church built there.

The CUP application included a payment of $5,000 toward funding the eventual traffic signal at the interchange.

It was interesting to note that people who spoke against granting the CUP to Springfield Church said that they were in favor of residential development with a density of one home per two acres. It will be interesting to see how much enthusiasm they can muster when rezoning plans for several hundred homes on the east side of Manakin Road materialize. That kind of development will shovel lots of cars into rush hour traffic and have a significantly greater impact on ground water than the church.

District 4 planning commissioner Jim Crews complained about the blue standing seam metal roof on the proposed church. He thought it should be a different color or shingled. Because the church is outside the Centerville village overlay boundaries, it is not required to adhere to any set of design standards. It is not appropriate for planning commissioners to address such matters.

Did anyone bother to listen to the architect for the project when he explained that the metal roof was chosen for low exterior maintenance on a heavily wooded site?

Detractors, who presented a petition against the CUP contended that the design of the proposed church is not in keeping with the rural character of the area.

There is a relatively new home on Manakin Road whose size, according to county property records it is 4,499 square feet, has no effective vegetative screening and is of modern design. Its owners were well within their rights to build their house as they saw fit and plunk it in plain sight.

Tucking the proposed Springfield Church in a wooded area hard by the interstate will have far less negative impact on the rural character of Manakin Road than the McMansions that have sprouted in plain sight there in recent years.

Even though the project is required to build only a right turn lane, that little bit of road improvement will make more room for traffic near the Rockford/Manakin Road intersection.

Presumably all residents of the subdivisions on Manakin Road south of I-64 understood that they would be living in enclaves with a single point of main road access and moved there anyway. Why are they worried about that now?

Querry said that he believes that the proposed structure is too large for the area that he could support a smaller building.

Supporters of Springfield Church spoke with gentle dignity about the positive aspects of the church. Members pledged to be good neighbors and a blessing to the community.

Perhaps the most interesting comment came from a Goochland resident who lives near the Hindu Center on Three Chopt Road. She remarked that religious enclave is a very quiet and good neighbor that has not had a negative impact on area traffic nor the neighborhood in general.

Those who spoke against the CUP were well within their rights to object. However, too many of the comments seemed tinged with hidden meaning for comfort. The objections raised to Springfield Church could apply to any of the residential communities in the same area.

On that same night, the commissioners considered another CUP application for the Grace Chinese Baptist Church to build on 22 acres on the north side of Broad Street Road just west of its intersection with Rt. 612. Grace Baptist plans to build on an open field at grade with a main road.

Again, neighbors of the property raised concerns about the size of the proposed building, 11,680 square feet; traffic; a natural gas transmission line that transects the property and drainage issues.

Ken Joyner, who owns the adjoining property to the east, reminded the commission that he was required to go to great lengths to preserve the existing rural character of the area when he sought a CUP and asked that the same standard be applied to Grace Baptist.

Gary Clower, a landscape architect who lives on Shallow Well Road, observed that the proposed structure is very imposing and not in keeping with the architectural vernacular of a farm community. He suggested a cluster of smaller buildings on the site.

Because many details were not addressed, and the application did not include a site plan, the commission voted to defer action on this CUP until its January 21, 2010 meeting.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Where is all that transparency

Reflections on a murky school board meeting

The December 8 monthly meeting of the Goochland School Board was an interesting gathering.

About 45 people braved a driving rain to see what the school board had to say about the budget situation.
These included interested citizens, concerned parents; three supervisors (William Quarles, District 2; Ned Creasey, District 3 and Rudy Butler, District 4) who did not come from the east bearing gifts and the county administrator Rebecca T. Dickson.

The school board managed to conduct most of its business in plain sight, yet it might as well have met behind closed doors because few people in the high school auditorium could hear well enough to follow most of the proceedings.

Three badly positioned microphones did a poor job of picking up the comments of the five school board members and school superintendent Dr. Linda Underwood, all soft-spoken individuals.

Folks sat forward hands cupped behind their ears straining to hear what was being said.

The meeting included two public comment periods, one before the start of business, the other at the conclusion of the public portion of the meeting.

Most of the speakers were parents whose children attend the gifted center. This program brings together bright elementary students who benefit greatly from an enriched curriculum and each other’s presence. There were many glowing anecdotes of the excellence of this program.

Indeed, Goochland schools have come a long way from the years when they were an embarrassment. They now rank, according to state statistics, among the best in the Commonwealth. Families from all socioeconomic levels send their children to our public schools and are well pleased with the result.

The gifted center parents, acting on what seems to be a rumor that the center will be closed to deal with county revenue shortfalls, urged the school board too keep the center open. There seemed to be little detailed information about the cost of operating the center.

Speakers also wanted information and offered some creative suggestions to the current budget dilemma. They decried the lack of meaningful answers to budget questions.

One rumor is that the heath care costs for the school employees will increase significantly to more than $1 million next year.

John Wright, an accountant by trade, suggested that the school board investigate the use of health savings accounts to both provide cost effective health insurance benefits for school employees.

School board members reacted to Wright’s suggestion with bored, deer-in-the-headlights expressions.

Everyone who spoke implored the school board to cut teacher jobs only as a last resort.

The school board made no response and instead looked aloof, arrogant and aggrieved at the comments.

No new information, beyond that the county has pushed back the submission date for the fiscal year 2010-11 school budget for to the end of January. By that time, the county will have final numbers on county real estate assessments.

A public hearing on the FY11 budget is on the schedule for next Tuesday, December 15. How can the school board hold a public hearing on a budget whose details are being circulated among parents and citizens by mostly unsubstantiated rumor?

Several parents advocated an increase in property tax rates contending that following declines in property values an increase in the rate would generate more revenue for the county that keeping the rate steady and would still result in lower dollar value tax bills for most landowners.

They seem to believe that because the schools are doing a good job they should get every penny they requested, that nothing can be pared from the proposed school budget, whatever that may be, without having a negative impact on the quality of education.

That is putting the cart before the horse.

The school board has a history of declining to provide details about how it spends its money, an amount slightly more than all of the property taxes collected in normal years. In recent years, its budget was around $27 million

The school board spends public funds and taxpayers have a right to know where their money goes.

Declarations that Goochland provides an excellent education at a lower per student cost than neighboring jurisdictions are all well and good. Perhaps some of that money could be better spent to further enrich the quality of education.

The real question here is one of accountability.

If the county schools consistently rank in the highest achievement categories of many standards should citizens just give the school board a blank check?

No. Taxpayers, especially in difficult economic times, have the right to now how their money is spent.

A detailed proposed school budget should be on the county website for review long before any action is taken. The economic difficulties have been brewing for a while and the school board should have been looking for ways to cut costs since the beginning of 2009.

About two years ago, District 5 supervisor Jim Eads asked for detailed information about school administrative personnel. He wanted to know what those people do and how much they are being paid. Eads wanted an explanation for a discrepancy between the supposed number of jobs and the number of W-2 forms issued by the schools. The school board has repeatedly failed to supply Eads with that information.

The recently published reduction in force policy seems to address only teachers. (This information is on the schools website

Parents at the meeting wanted to know how many jobs in the central office are under consideration for elimination.

Parents also have a right to know which services could be eliminated from a tight school budget.

Much of the information circulating about the expected shrunken school budget consists of rumors carefully placed to motivate parents to besiege the supervisors with demands for full funding.

Parents of children in the gifted center tend to be engaged people who care deeply about the success of their kids in particular and the school system overall.

Using emotional blackmail tactics to manipulate them into demanding higher taxes, is deplorable. Threatening to eliminate the program that is helping their children to achieve their full potential when other cuts could be made is shameful.

If the school board truly believes that every employee is vital to the delivery of an excellent education, explanations of what they do and why they command a particular salary should be easy to document and defend.

The school board’s total lack of accountability to parents and citizens is disgraceful.

Hopefully motivated parents and other interested citizens will run for those seats at the next local election in November 2011.

Goochland taxpayers want good schools and will pay for them if they truly believe that their money is spent wisely.

The regime of fiscal smoke and mirrors is over.

Goochland citizens are not stupid. Why does the school board treat us like imbeciles?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Second jobs

More baskets, more eggs, less pain

The current economic downturn affects everyone. The financial sector meltdown has hobbled the very affluent, often the sole segment of society most insulated from fiscal turmoil.

Local government is caught in the crossfire.

Goochland County is not immune from any of this grief. For many years we coasted along on ever-rising property values to fund county services as though the good times would never end. Although the county boasts the lowest tax rate in the region, 53 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, burgeoning assessments translated into significantly higher tax bills for most landowners. While some tout our low tax rate, others find the burden hard to bear.

The supervisors seemed to be operating on a whistling past the graveyard fiscal planning system falsely assuming that there was no end to rising land values. This year, they are getting a very rude awakening as the latest assessed valuations, expected to be mailed out after the first of the year, will fall drastically across the board for the first time in recent memory.

As the county scrambles to provide core services with less revenue, the absence of a clear vision for Goochland, and the consequences of that deficiency, is coming into unpleasant focus.

County officials have compared balancing the county budget to that of a household. When times are tough, you just cut back and things will be all right. When things are very tough, however, many people look for a second job.

Economic development should be the county’s second job. In good times, it provides money for extras, in hard times, it keeps food on the table and pays the light bill.

If the board really wants to keep the entire county very rural, it needs to have the courage to inform citizens that property taxes will continue to be the primary revenue source for all county services.

Then, if residents want excellent schools, law enforcement and other services including well-staffed career fire-rescue, all landowners will pay for it, not just the rich folk on the gold coast.

Don’t expect this to happen any time soon. One of the great things about living in Goochland is the accessibility of our elected officials. Many return phone calls and answer emails. Because of this, they take lots of heat about tax increases. People who would never bother to phone or email elected officials at the state or federal level happily buttonhole supervisors to complain about higher taxes.

Meanwhile, the supervisors pretend to favor economic development yet put measures in place to hobble landowners who would like to bring business to the county.

Development per se is not evil. Indeed, in some areas, like the Tuckahoe Creek Service District, the county should be joined at the hip with the landowners to attract business. Instead, the county has taken an indifferent, if not hostile, stance toward some major landowners. The result is that West Creek looks more like a nature preserve than an economic engine generating tax revenues and jobs.

Last week, the board approved the intent to prezone some parcels of land near the Oilville Interstate 64 interchange and create a service district there to provide water and sewer infrastructure. No county funds would be spent before significant commercial development exists and the landowners chip in with a substantial cash payment. An ad valorem tax to help pay for the utilities will also be levied on parcels inside the district.

Proposed wastewater facilities will be self-limiting to prevent development from creeping into the rural areas.

The concept will spend about the first half of 2010 working through county processes, but, at long last, the county is going in the right direction.

The real question is why were steps to provide utility service at Oilville not taken a decade ago? Indeed, the county’s Industrial Development Authority, now the Economic Development Authority, funded feasibility studies that were presented to the board twice, 10 and six years ago. Both studies were dismissed out of hand.

It is very hard to comprehend why the county did not plan for development at each I64 interchange when the road was first built. Plans need to be made now to identify and craft strategies to encourage creation of commercial nodes at the interchanges so the county can capture revenues from vehicles riding down the interstate. The jobs those businesses will create are also badly needed.

When the board approved the latest iteration of its comprehensive land use plan it had no trouble including an eleventh hour provision to permit relatively dense residential rezoning in the vicinity of the Shannon Hill interchange. Yet nothing was added to encourage commercial development there beyond general blather that the area is suitable for commercial use.

Right now, there is no development at all near the Shannon Hill interchange. Given the economic activity underway at Zion Crossroads, that could change quickly once the economy recovers. Will Goochland be behind the curve and miss out on commercial revenues that could provide more revenues for schools and other vital services again?

As the supervisors agonize over revenue shortfalls resulting from shrunken property values and resulting budget cuts, they need to look eastward and emulate Henrico whose commercial and industrial tax base help ease the pain in hard times.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

On the first of December

A thumbnail sketch of the December board of supervisors’ meeting

Once again, the regular monthly meeting of the Goochland Board of Supervisors was short and to the point. This is a welcome change from the day-long marathons that characterized the previous administration.

The big news of the meeting was the board’s unanimous vote to appoint Norman B. Sales, currently the City Attorney of Richmond, as the new Goochland County Attorney. He will join the county staff on January 18 and will be a welcome addition to the new Goochland management team being put in place by county administrator Rebecca T. Dickson. Barbara Rose, interim county attorney, graciously agreed to serve until Sales comes on board.
Sales’ experience dealing with the sometimes high weird of Richmond government is excellent preparation for the Goochland County Attorney post. Other city alumni on the Goochland staff include Don Charles who has done an outstanding job as director of community development and Gary Duval our new county engineer who is busy sorting out the public utilities department.

Thanks to the outstanding efforts of Goochland Fire Marshal Phil Paquette and Dave Duffy and his staff at the county office of permits and inspection for their efforts to comply with continuing education, the Goochland County Board of Supervisors and County Administrator are recipients of the 2009 Virginia Building and Code Officials Association President’s Award for supporting Paquette and Duffy in their endeavors.

Sheriff Jim Agnew reported that seasonal thieves are active gain and daytime break-ins, especially in the Oilville/Hanover area are on a seasonal upswing. Agnew said that deputies are setting up roadblocks in the area and checking all vehicles. On a recent day, 500 cars were stopped and resulting in several arrests.

Observant citizens are vital to helping stamp out this kind of crime, said Agnew, who urged residents to report any unusual behavior to his office. The non-emergency number is 556-5349 or call 911.

The Goochland Electoral Board commended Bill Cleveland, the county’s information technology director and Cecil Youngblood, director of buildings and grounds for their assistance in the recent gubernatorial election.

Herb Griffith, Electoral Board secretary especially commended Mark Troy, a member of the information technology staff, for his technical assistance with the preparation, programming and testing of the new electronic poll books. He contended those services place Goochland’s electoral processes far superior to most other jurisdictions.

The board approved an annual legislative agenda that outlines its position on a variety of issues addressed by the general assembly. Those items include support for granting counties the same power to levy excise taxes currently enjoyed by cities and towns.

It also supports excusing rural areas from designating urban growth areas with permitted density at least four times that of surrounding areas. The board needs to understand that higher densities are needed in a few select areas well served by roads and public utilities, which right now means Centerville, to jump start meaningful economic development in the Tuckahoe Creek Service District.

See the board packet on the county website at for details.

The board voted unanimously to refer rezoning of approximately 132 acres on the east side of Oilville Road both north and south of Interstate 64 for rezoning from A-2 and B-2 to B-3, which will could support a hotel, to the planning commission.

A public hearing on the creation of a service district at the Oilville I-64 interchange, to be held on March 2, 2010 was also unanimously approved. The service district plan states that the county will not incur any debt to build wastewater treatment and water supplies until $1 million is contributed by landowners in the district and $14 million of development is in place.
All land in the district must be out of land use, zoned for commercial or retail and be assessed for the ad valorem tax, which is currently estimated at 40 cents per $100 of valuation before the county will consider construction of utility infrastructure. Landowners must donate a lot for the location of the wastewater treatment plant and reimburse the county for construction of an access road to the plant. Also, a plat must be submitted to the county clearly designating about 36 acres on the eastern boundary of the land north of I64 for residential use. This property abuts existing residential property.

A resolution in support of the Oilville actions from the Economic Development Authority was read into the record.

By March, the fate of the Oilville I-64 rest stops should be clear.

The board went into closed session to obtain legal advice concerning the Tuckahoe Creek Service District and certain vendor information. When the board emerged from closed session, Eads announced that the board declined to act on requests to add certain parcels of land to the TCSD. The board has traditionally addressed requests for parcels of land to enter or leave the TCSD at its December meeting. The lack of action may be related to the exhaustive review of the District by county staff currently in process.

During public comment at the start of the meeting and following the closed session concerned parents passionately urged the board not to cut core programs and services out of the school budget.

Several speakers suggested that the board raise the tax rate to cover the expected shortfall caused by declining real estate values. One contended that surrounding jurisdictions have higher tax rates and that a rate in Goochland of up to 67 cents per $100 would not be unreasonable.

These parents seemed to believe that the supervisors are demanding that teachers be fired and core programs, including the gifted center, be eliminated because of the financial downturn.

Why are these intelligent, engaged parents not demanding that the school board protect teacher jobs and core programs and instead address the shortfall by trimming administrative personnel and ancillary services? Why do parents permit themselves to be manipulated by the schools who claim that the only way to deal with expected revenue shortfalls is to eliminate the items that will generate the most outrage?

The school board does not seem to understand that it has an important part in the careful stewardship of tax dollars. Its job is to make sure that the school system spends the money wisely, not just rubberstamp whatever the superintendent wants. There are still a lot of questions about the proposed school budget for fiscal 2011 caused largely by a lack of transparency on the part of the schools.

All Goochland students should receive an education that well prepares them to meet the challenges of the next phase of their lives. Taxpayers, however, should have confidence, currently lacking, that their education tax dollars are spent wisely and well.

Monday, November 30, 2009

“Tis the season

Celebrate close to home this year

Now that we have given thanks for our blessings, it’s time to turn our attention to the Christmas season.

There are many opportunities to get into the holiday spirit right here in Goochland County.

Next week from Wednesday, December 2 through Sunday, December 6, Salem Baptist Church will present Bethlehem Walk. Come get a taste of what Mary and Joseph saw and felt as they sought shelter in Bethlehem on that wonderful holy night long ago. A visit in cold and wet weather gives new meaning to their experiences. The hours are: Wed: 6-9pm; Thurs 6-9pm; Fri. 6-10pm; Sat.4-9pm and Sun.3-8pm

Bethlehem Walk is located on the south side of Rt. 250 a few miles west of Centerville. Thanks to the folks at Salem and the Goochland Sheriff’s Department, traffic control is excellent with easy access and egress from the site.

On Saturday morning December 5, two county fire-rescue companies will open their stations for breakfast with Santa for children of all ages. Pancakes and other goodies will be hot off the griddle by 8 a.m. as Santa gets ready to listen to good little girls and boys.

Centerville Company 3 and Fife Company 4 offer the event as a way to say thank you to the communities they are privileged to serve and make sure that every child has a chance to chat with the Jolly Old Elf.

The delicious breakfasts are cooked and served by auxiliary members and volunteers. This is a great opportunity to nourish body and soul with food and fellowship with friends old and new.

The Centerville fire-rescue station is located at 52 Broad Street Road in Centerville. Company 4 is located on Hadensville-Fife Road about a mile north of its intersection with Rt. 6 in Georges Tavern.

On Saturday evening, December 5, the Field Day of the Past show grounds, decorated for Christmas, open at 4 p.m. Take a walk through the dusk to a time not so long ago when life was simpler. Stroll under the huge Field Days’ signature star and contemplate the real meaning of the season.

Goochland 2009 Christmas Mother Anne Larus Hardwicke will be on hand greeting people and accepting donations of canned goods for the hungry.

Don’t forget to contribute to the Goochland Christmas Mother. This non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, run by local volunteers, makes sure that everyone in Goochland has a Merry Christmas. Donations may be mailed, year ‘round to P. O. Box 322, Goochland, VA 23063.

All of these events are free for the enjoying. Stay close to home and celebrate the season.

(If any events were omitted, please submit information to the comment section.)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sleep well

The Goochland sheriff’s department is on the job

Goochland County is a pretty safe place. That’s no accident.

On Wednesday, November 18, alumni of the Citizens’ Academy, an educational program sponsored by the Sheriff’s Department, were reminded of the superb law enforcement organization that keeps our county safe during a reunion.

U. S. Postal inspectors D. M. McGinnis and M. J. Romano spoke briefly about identity theft, one of the fastest growing crimes in the nation.

They explained that, in this digital age, it is very easy for criminals to obtain private information and use it to set up accounts in your name that they control without your knowledge.

A regular check of your credit at, which is a free and secure service, can catch any irregularities before your hard-earned credit record can be destroyed.

They outlined some simple measures to safeguard personal information. Deposit outgoing mail only in large blue boxes such as those in front of local post offices. Raising the flag on the mail box in front of your house displays a “steal me” sign for anyone looking to obtain financial information McGinnis explained.

“No one writes letters anymore,” he said. “Most outgoing mail is bill payment.”

Those envelopes contain signed checks, which offer a wealth of opportunities for identity thieves. In addition to obtaining the electronic codes for your bank account, a check can also be “washed” and rewritten for the benefit of the bad guys.

Be very careful about giving out personal information including your name, date of birth, social security number (only intended for payment of benefits), your address, mother’s maiden name and account numbers over the phone or internet.

Banks do not lose your personal information, said Romano, and will not call or email you to ask you to help them restore their records. Never give any personal information over the phone unless you initiate contact such as ordering from a catalog.

Shred all credit card receipts and other documents with personal information on them to prevent thieves from going through your trash and obtaining the information.

Preapproved checks from your credit card company and any preapproved credit card applications should also be shredded.
Internet commerce on sites that display a padlock symbol or that have https in the url line are very secure.

You email, however, can be accessed by identity thieves so be very careful what sort of information you transmit that way.

The Goochland Sheriff’s office is part of the Metro Richmond ID Theft Task force. Because ID theft is such an ethereal, anonymous crime, it can be difficult to catch and prosecute its perpetrators across jurisdictional lines, said Romano. By joining forces, law enforcement agencies in the Richmond Metro region are able to pool information and follow criminals as they target different parts of the area. The task force has been very successful in apprehending identity thieves and bringing them to justice.

This is one of many strategies employed by Sheriff Jim Agnew and his superb team to leverage limited resources and provide excellent law enforcement services for Goochland citizens.

Mike East, an investigator with the Goochland Sheriff’s office, is our county’s member on the task force. Its website has comprehensive information about identity theft and contact information.

Romano and McGinnis are available to speak to all interested groups. Their presentation is interesting and offers good information.

Citizens Academy alumni were also treated to a display of some new equipment the sheriff’s department has obtained through Homeland Security grants.

Perhaps most noteworthy is the communications trailer complete with a telescoping 110 foot antenna mast and state of the art digital radio equipment that creates a “tower of un Babel.” This equipment permits agencies from many jurisdictions to communicate with each other on a common radio frequency during emergency operations. This is a vital component of successful and effective response to widespread disasters be they weather-related or man made. The breakdown in communications caused by the lack of common frequencies was deadly during the 9/11 response in New York.

This is a huge step forward for emergency communications in the region and quite a feather in Goochland’s cap that the communications trailer was located here.

Other implements that protect deputies while gathering information about criminals was also demonstrated. This will undoubtedly be part of the next Citizens’ Academy, which Sheriff Agnew said will begin in early 2011.

This is a very interesting and worthwhile program that gives ordinary folks a look into law enforcement operations in Goochland.

Sessions include: speakers from the Goochland Courts and Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office; a visit to a local jail; a trip to the firearms’ range and a ride along with a deputy to understand first hand the challenges of keeping the peace in all of Goochland’s 295 square miles.

Vigilant citizens are a vital component of effective law enforcement. If you see something in your area that looks out of place or odd, inform the Sheriff’s office.

Recently, an observant citizen in the Fife area reported suspicious activity in the neighborhood. Deputies investigated and arrested a person casing Goochland homes who had committed break-ins in Henrico. Call 911 for an emergency or 556-5349 for the non-emergency line. The Sheriff’s Office is the only county department whose phones are answered by a real person 24/7.

Visit for more information about the Sheriff’s Department.

Sleep tight, Goochland, we’re in good hands.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Sometimes you get rained out

Lessons of the helicopter incident

There’s a big flap going around the county about the use of a helicopter to dry out the Goochland High School football field so an important game could be played on schedule last week.

Reportedly, the cost of the helicopter, about $1,600, was covered by donations from private sources.

Head football coach Bryan Gordon contended that drying the field made play safer for the athletes and helped to protect the field surface from damage caused by play in the mud and prevent costly replacement of sod.

Meanwhile, the school system is threatening to lay off teachers due to the expected budget shortfall caused by declining property assessments.

Okay, no tax dollars were used to pay for the helicopter so it was just a problem solving exercise for the football coach.

Expect all accounts of this incident in the “local” media to be carefully spun by the school system’s public information person.

Perhaps a more important question to ask is what larger lessons did the incident teach our kids?

Before we get to all that, Gordon, his coaches, staff and the team deserve praise for their hard work that resulted in an undefeated season. This is especially noteworthy because Goochland moved up to face supposedly more difficult opponents.

We hope they repeat their win at the state level this year. Go Bulldogs!

But, after the cheering stops and they players move on to the next stage of their lives, what lessons will they take with them from this episode?

How will they handle situations when, after working as hard as they can toward a particular goal, through no fault of their own, there is no happy ending? Adults instinctively want to protect the young and insulate them from the nasty bits in life. This can be carried too far.

There are lots of rainouts in life. Stuff happens that is no one’s fault, but has consequences.

Learning how to deal with failure and disappointment is part of growing up. It hurts, but it builds the character skills that get us through the tough times that are part of life.

Like it or not, at some point there will be no one there to smooth the way for the football team members, to metaphorically dry off the field so they can go on to glory. Will the helicopter incident give members of the football team a misplaced sense of entitlement throughout their lives?

If there is so much fiscal enthusiasm for Goochland High School football, perhaps the entire program should be funded by private donations.

Then, there are the environmental concerns.

Our school curriculum undoubtedly devotes time and energy to blathering about global warming and the importance of reducing our carbon footprint.

A helicopter hovering over the football field long enough to dry it out left a huge carbon footprint as it burned through many pounds of aviation fuel.

People who under usual circumstances would raise concerns about polluted the air, distressed migratory birds and a deleterious effect on ground water recharge by changing runoff patterns were silent.

The incident is a case of good intentions run amok. Of course we want our team to win, but it’s about more than winning football games.

Creating an environment for children that is so protective that it eliminates all possibility of failure or disappointment will only lead to bigger failures later on.

The whole thing was a massive lapse of judgment. Regardless of who paid for the helicopter, authorizing that kind of an expenditure in these economic times is yet another example of the arrogance of the school system.

Would the world have ended had the game in question been postponed? Where was the school board in all of this? We want our children to receive an excellent education. We also want our tax dollars to be spent wisely.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

So proudly we hail

Honor our veterans

When the world was younger, it paused at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month to pay homage to those who died in the “war to end all war.”

As the bloody century ground on, that war became the first of many as millions more died in subsequent conflicts pitting evil against good.

At the end of the day, after the lofty words of politicians and stirring oratory of generals faded into history, the veterans of those wars walk among us. We often forget they are there.

Now, November 11 is set aside to pay tribute to all veterans. For too many people, it’s just another day off, a day with no mail delivery.

Perhaps the shrinking number of veterans the past few decades explains why things seem to be on a downward spiral in our society.

It’s way too easy to forget about the sacrifice that every veteran and their families made for our country. We owe them a debt and need to treat them with honor. The deplorable treatment received by returning Vietnam vets must never be repeated.

Many veterans came home with physical injuries, others returned with wounded souls that may never heal. Some seemed unscathed not realizing that they harbored a time bomb that would end their lives far too soon.

Agent Orange, the herbicide that defoliated the Vietnamese countryside denying the Viet Cong a place to hide, turned out to be a curse upon American troops.

Sailors who patrolled the Mekong River in their youth find themselves stricken with terrible terminal diseases in late middle age robbing them of the precious years to see grand children grow up. We don’t know what threats those currently in uniform will face decades down the road.

Veterans came home changed by their military service. They matured, gained confidence by being a part of something larger than themselves. They learned the value of being able to depend on their buddies and understood the obligation of being depended upon.

When veterans return to civilian life, those new attitudes shape the way that they conduct themselves and in turn better our nation.

They value good character and live lives worthy of emulation.

And they pitch in to make their corner of the world a little better.

Grasping the intuitive wisdom of a philosophy that mandates “officers east last,” many a self-involved young junior officer honed leadership skills that carried over into civilian life after military service.

We all know about the heroes who won the medals and the wars. It’s far too easy to forget about the scores of support personnel who made the heroism possible.

World War II was fought by boys who left farms, offices, factories and unemployment lines to defend their country. Some with physical difficulties that could have earned them a 4F draft deferment, connived their way into uniform.

The tasks they performed, keeping the morale up on troop ships crossing the submarine infested Atlantic Ocean, for instance, took them into harm’s way. They would have been just as dead as the heroes of Dieppe, but gotten little notice.

More recently, Goochland’s own Aaron Boyd, who was a Navy cook on an aircraft carrier following the 9/11 attacks, did his bit by making sure that pilots found fresh chocolate chip cookies waiting for them when they returned to the ship.

Bobby McCormick, who has served several tours of duty in Iraq, is the new young face of the American veteran. He left his beautiful family to fight for his country.

Our veterans represent the best of America. They put their lives on the line to defend freedom and our way of life. There are no words to adequately thank them, but do it anyway.

American Legion Post 215 will hold a Veterans’ Day observance at 11 a.m. on the Courthouse green weather permitting. In case of rain, the event will be held at the high school.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Chickens come home to roost

Walking the razor’s edge at budget time

The November supervisors’ meeting saw the first skirmishes in the budget battle for the 2011 fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2010.

County administrator Rebecca T. Dickson, during the evening portion of the meeting, presented and explained the county’s current and expected fiscal position. She was careful to point out that the numbers are preliminary, but they did give everyone a good idea of the magnitude of the financial shortfall the county faces due to declining real estate values.

Dickson said that she expects revenues for 2010 to fall about 12 percent, drop another five percent in 2011 and remain flat the following year.

Goochland, like most jurisdictions, is trying to find its way through the minefield of challenges caused by the economic meltdown. Unfortunately, in past years, our board has used a whistling past the graveyard method to deal with problems, so we may be caught more flatfooted than most.

The failure of the county to attract meaningful economic development puts the burden of the shortfall squarely on the backs of land owners with property tax still the significant source of county revenue.

Predictably, the board room was filled to standing-room- only capacity mostly with parents and teachers passionately concerned about the prospect of significant reduction in teacher ranks. The school budget consumes about 55 percent of the county budget.

Teachers are a vital resource to a school system. Think about the teachers that changed your life. They helped you tap your own resources to find the path to success in life. How would your life have been different if they had not been there?

The county school system has about 400 employees, 200 of them teachers. It’s hard to understand why the teacher corps is not at the very bottom of the list of proposed cuts. One reason is that a threat to fire teachers strikes a powerful emotional cord in parents that motivates them to action.

Unfortunately, this tactic has been used, successfully, so often in the past that it’s lost its authenticity.

Goochland schools have morphed in the past seven or so years from an embarrassment to one of the best districts in the region. This is accomplishment is the result of hard work by the school system, teachers, parents and students.

Good schools are an expensive proposition.

Several speakers cited the curious factoid that Goochland has one of the highest per capita incomes in the country. Everyone wants to hit up all those rich people, all 30 or so, to fund whatever they’re passionate about.

Those figures are based on an average. Teachers should know that when you have a relatively small population —Goochland’s is around 21,000 including the 2,000 or so inmates at our prisons — and you divide that number into the total annual income of all residents, it doesn’t take very many households with seven figure incomes to skew the result to a number that does not paint a true picture of conditions on the ground.

For the past few years the school system has aggressively pursued its funding with the board of supervisors. Using carefully choreographed demonstrations at the annual budget hearing school proponents passionately protest proposed budget cuts when the supervisors attempt to slow the rate of increase of the school budget.

The schools usually get most of what they request.

Excellence in local education is a very fine goal, but it’s never been quite clear if the supervisors and citizens agree that funding excellence in education should take a top fiscal priority.

This year, things are different. The expected shortfalls are the worst in recent memory.

The supervisors will have to make difficult and delicate choices about use of public dollars.

They can keep the 53 cent tax rate in place, which will result in lower property tax bills for some landowners. They can use part of the county’s fund balance, which Dickson estimated at approximately, $14.2 million. They can raise the tax rate on the reduced assessed valuations or they can slash spending to meet the expected county income.

None of those choices are happy ones. No matter what the board does, some citizens will be angry.

Although several speakers at the board meeting urged the supervisors to raise property taxes to prevent budget cuts, many people in the county are hurting financially.

Businesses are closing. Homes are in foreclosure. People are losing their jobs or not getting raises. For many people, money is very tight.

To give a modicum of relief to some business owners, the board voted 4-1 with Jim Eads District 5 dissenting:

“ to extend its deadline for payment of business personal property taxes for ninety (90) days without incurring the 10% late penalty. However, interest will accrue beginning January 1, 2010. The new deadline for paying business personal property taxes will be Friday, March 5, 2010. After this date, penalty is 10% of the uncollected balance. Interest begins January 1, 2010 and is not included in the extension.”

Although the picture is grim Dickson and the supervisors are right to publicly discuss the impact of the expected shortfalls now. This action represents a significant change in the county budget process. Dickson’s predecessor rarely, if ever, presented the county’s financial picture at open meetings. The budget was always an inside baseball behind closed doors activity with only carefully orchestrated glimpses permitted before the public hearing.

The 53 cent tax rate, which has been in effect for several years, is the result of a projection based on steady growth in population and property values. Indeed, it seemed like the budget was crafted by multiplying the total assessed valuation of all of the land in Goochland by 53 cents to determine the total budget. Then, working backwards to allocate that amount of money to various departments regardless of their budget requests.

During the fiscal year if a department ran out of money, supplemental appropriations were made. In all it was a very magical process with probably little basis in generally accepted accounting principles.

All that has changed. Everyone says they want transparency. Well, here it is, warts and all.

No one wants to pay higher taxes. However, if there is such a thing, local taxes may be the best kind. Those dollars stay close to home and fund things that make our community work.

It’s time for some citizen input. How would you instruct the supervisors to deal with the budget shortfall? Which items should receive funding priorities?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

On elections

You don’t have to vote

Tuesday, November 3 is Election Day.

We Americans are not forced to vote. In some countries, suffrage is mandatory. Not here, you can vote or not, as you choose.

Perhaps there is no requirement for participation in elections because it never occurred to the founding fathers that anyone given the opportunity to select those who govern them would not be ready, willing and eager to vote.

You don’t have to vote. In most elections there are at least a few candidates that are embarrassments to their parties. Sometimes all choices are bad and it is hard to see how it matters who gets elected.

You don’t have to vote, but every vote counts. In the past decade elections at all levels have hinged on a very few ballots. The people who stayed home could have changed everything.

Government at all levels is a mess and not likely to improve any time soon regardless of the annual pledge of candidates that this time things will change for the better.

Lately it seems like both parties want to drive everyone except their most ardent and easily controlled supporters away from the political system.

You don’t have to vote, but if you do research your choices first. Don’t vote for someone because of an endorsement by a movie star or athlete or your next-door neighbor. There is plenty of information on the internet about all the candidates running this year.

Just in case you missed it, Virginia is electing a governor lieutenant governor, attorney general and the entire House of Delegates. Both the Republicans and Democrats have a full slate of candidates. Goochland is part of the 56th District for the House of Delegates. If you have time to find this blog while doodling around you have time to research the candidates.

You don’t have to vote, but if you pass on the election, make it a conscious decision. Voting may be a bit inconvenient. Perhaps is should be.

It was definitely inconvenient for those who died in battle to protect our right to vote. It was certainly inconvenient for suffragettes to battle the establishment to secure voting rights for women. It was doubtless inconvenient for the civil rights protestors who routed the evils of racial discrimination at the polls.

New procedures at Goochland polling places should move the lines a lot faster than last year.

Absentee ballots are easily obtainable, but it’s too late to do that now. Plan ahead for next year.

You don’t have to vote, but if you do, be sure to bring a picture ID. It’s hard to understand why anyone would not be proud to be identified as a legally certified voter to ensure the sanctity of the whole process.

You don’t have to vote, but if you do, you will join Goochland citizens who last year set a record with their voting percentages.

You don’t have to vote, but if you do, be sure to thank the election officials who make it all possible. They sure don’t do it for the money. County registrar Frances Ragland and electoral board members Shirley Christian, Robin Lind and Herb Griffith work hard year round to ensure that all elections here are well run.

You don’t have to vote, but if you don’t, you can’t complain about whoever gets elected.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Looking forward

Parks master plan prepares for the future

On Monday October, 26, District 2 supervisor William Quarles, Jr. held his first town meeting in conjunction with an open house about the county’s park master plan.

Unfortunately, the meeting was sparsely attended. Those who were there gained valuable insights about the strategies being put in place to prepare Goochland for he future.

New county administrator Rebecca T. Dickson explained that Goochland is experiencing a $1.3 million revenue shortfall in the current fiscal year. That situation, she said, will get worse in the next fiscal year.

Due to shrinking real estate assessments, which she said are expected to decline about 12 percent overall (some will rise, some will fall, some will remain unchanged) the county expects real estate tax revenues to decline by $5.4 million for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2010.

Dickson said that while she does not recommend accessing the general fund to pay operating expense, that strategy is not unheard of in trying fiscal times. She expects the tax rate to remain at the current 53 cents per hundred dollars of assessed valuation.

Dickson properly and gracefully declined to lay blame for the troubles in the Tuckahoe Creek Service District.

That task will be addressed by the voters at the next local election in 2011.

She predicted, however, that the comprehensive countywide audit, currently in process, will identify past problems and offer solutions to fix them.

“The sky is not falling,” Dickson said of the TCSD. “But it may need to be propped up a bit.”

She said that the TCSD was a good plan and is still quite viable going forward. The economic assumptions on which it was based, however, have changed and the county needs to change course accordingly.

Quarles contended that the TCSD is the county’s economic engine and he too seemed optimistic that it will be able to bring needed revenue to the county. He offered no specifics.

The proposed parks master plan was discussed by the county’s principal planner Tom Coleman.

Crafted with the input of the Parks and Recreation Advisory committee, the master plan designates priority for development to four parcels of land. They are: the soccer complex next to the high school; the old Middle School; the Borne property off of Rt. 6 and a county owned tract on Mathews Lane in western Goochland.

Tucker Park at Maidens Landing with access to the James River is not a priority for the county because it is being developed under the auspices of a public/private task force in conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce.

Right now, there is little money to build parks, admitted Coleman.

Why bother with a master plan, whose build out could cost about $14.8 million when the county is facing a drastic revenue shortfall?

Coleman, Dickson and Quarles said that having a master plan in place is a proactive step to enable Goochland to take advantage of funding opportunities that include grant money and public/private partnerships.

For years, the Goochland United Soccer Association (GUSA) has begged the county to acquire land for a soccer complex. Acreage next to the high school has been cleared, rough graded and seeded, all good first steps for the complex.
Before it can be put into use, however, safe road access from Rt. 6 and parking must be built. Both items carry hefty price tags.

GUSA has expressed a willingness to obtain funds to improve a county soccer complex. The land is there, now it’s time for GUSA to get to work.

Derek Stamey, the county’s new director of Parks and Recreations, observed that the master plan offers a great opportunity to get the ball rolling by working with groups like GUSA. Part of his job is to aggressively pursue grant money and other alternate funding sources.

With fairly detailed plans for specific parcels of land on hand, the county can move forward quickly when money becomes available.

Wendy Hobbs, a resident of District 2, asked when the plans would become reality. She stated that young people in the area have “nothing to do.”

Coleman said there is really no time line.

Dickson suggested that the county needs to investigate new ways to fund its capital improvement plan. In the past, most CIP items have been paid for with money from the county general fund on a pay as you go basis.

At some point, the economy will move through the dangerous rapids we’re now negotiating and find itself in calm and richer waters, Quarles contended.

The old middle school property is rife with possibility. Although the county has known for at least five years that the property would be surplus at the end of the 2007 school year, no decision about its disposition has yet been made.

In the meantime, the vacant property has begun to decay, increasing the cost of any new use. The building and the approximately 19 acres it sits on could be used for a variety of purposes. It will be interesting to see how many more years it sits there waiting for a decision.

Quarles gave a brief update about county government. He made it clear that he was speaking for himself and not the board of supervisors.

He was questioned about why the county is not doing more to make Goochland more hospitable to small business to generate jobs and revenue.

Quarles said that he wants to make sure that any new development is economically and environmentally sound.

One subject dear to Quarles’ heart is the need to find a way for residents of all parts of the county to have the ability to access high speed internet.

He seemed to indicate that the best way for the county to find a way to create an atmosphere attractive to private sector providers of emerging technology.

Broadband in Goochland, Quarles observed, will probably not be a one size fits all proposition. Currently, residents in an odd configuration of eastern Goochland, Courthouse Village, Millers Lane and Shepperdtown Road are served by Comcast.

Many other people use air cards or satellite systems, which have gotten mixed reviews. The rest of us suffer with and swear at dial-up connections.

Quarles wants to ensure that all county residents, regardless of their economic situation, have broadband access. Goochland, he said, has a digital divide that penalizes students who live outside areas with broadband access whose families cannot afford alternative internet options. How to provide broadband access throughout the county and who will pay are thorny issues a long way from resolution.

The internet issue illustrates the attitudinal differences around the county. At the District 5 town meeting earlier this month, the broadband issue was not raised because it is widely available there.

It is unfortunate that so few people attended this meeting either to chat with Quarles and Dickson or learn about the master plan for parks.

Citizen indifference results in non-responsive local government.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Building trust

The long way back

On Monday October 19 members of the Tuckahoe Creek Service District Advisory Committee (TCSDAC)had their quarterly meeting with county officials. Comprised of major landowners in the district and appointed by the board of supervisors, the TCSDAC has been a long suffering entity.

At the start of the project in 2003, meetings were held almost monthly at a local restaurant. Engineers and other experts involved in construction and finance would put on a dog and pony show, often complete with charts and graphs that illustrated construction time lines and debt service schedules.

Since January, the meetings have been held in the county administration building and the tentative cordiality expressed by the TCSDAC members toward the county has been replaced with justified wariness.

New county engineer Gary Duval was introduced before county administrator Rebecca T. Dickson began the day’s dialog.

There was not much to report since the last meeting on August 3, Dickson said. She and staff have been working diligently to get their arms around all of the details of the TCSD.

Dickson reported that sheets of butcher paper, about 31 running feet, had been hung on the walls and used to document details, and questions about the project.

Until that task is completed, it will be impossible to diagnose the health of the patient and prescribe treatment.

She said that staff is still trying to figure out if some parcels that are in West Creek, but not part of the TCSD were treated as part of the TCSD for utility billing purposes.

This seems to indicate that the county did not establish an orderly record keeping process for public utilities that could be easily expanded as the system grew.

A larger and more important issue, one most definitely not of Dickson’s making, is the absence of trust between the county and TCSD landowners.

The county, due to attitudes and polices established by employees now gone and some members of the board of supervisors, acted in the past as though TCSD landowners were trying to steal something from Goochland.

Landowners, who agreed to have an extra tax placed on their property to fund the utilities needed for profitable development, often found attempts to develop their land foiled by unrealistic county policies. Sometimes, those policies were changed in mid-stream.

When the TCSD was created, landowners agreed to have pay an additional tax to fund the public utilities that would, in theory, there are no guarantees in the development game, make their property more marketable.

Although assessed valuations rose like a rocket until last year, landowners rarely realized more than a larger tax bill from their investment in Goochland.

Now, as the smoke from the personnel shake up at the county clears, it is time for the county and landowners to come together to address the problems of the TCSD and work going forward to make it a success.

This will require complete transparency on the part of the county. No more carefully massaged numbers to paint a rosy but false scenario of the balance sheet. The true numbers, which may not yet be known, must be shared with the landowners to craft accurate forecasts for rates and debt service schedules.

Dickson and county staff are working very hard to sort out the mess and offer workable solutions. The supervisors need to come together to support her recommendations.

Every taxpayer in Goochland will benefit from the success of the TCSD and we will all suffer if it fails.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

East versus west

Who benefits from economic development in Goochland?

Perhaps a better question is who is punished by a paucity of businesses in the county?

The need for sources of public revenue above and beyond real estate taxes is more pressing than ever.

A quick look at county property values confirms the oft- heard whine that property owners from roughly Cardwell Road east pay most of the taxes in Goochland.

Land to the west tends to have lower assessments so its owners fund a smaller share of the county revenue pie. When the national, state and local economy went into meltdown mode, the pie began to shrink.

The board of supervisors will face hard choices when they craft the county budget for the next fiscal year, which starts on July 1, 2010. They can cut spending, raise taxes, raid the general fund, or any combination to keep things going.

They undoubtedly want to do none of those things, but will have to chart a course to minimize the pain, a very difficult task that could have been lightened had there been more businesses in the county.

What are all those tax dollars, the county budget was more than $57 million this year, used for?

County schools consume all of the real estate tax collected. All other services from law enforcement to courts to solid waste are funded by other sources.

Many items fall between the cracks.

For instance, last year board chairman Andrew Pryor, District 1, came to his fellow supervisors hat in hand to request funds to improve playground equipment at Byrd Elementary School. Playgrounds at the county’s other two elementary schools were equipped by their respective PTAs.

Located in an economically challenged part of the county, Byrd parents are less able to raise funds.

Residents of Goochland’s “gold Coast” along River Road seem to have little interest in economic development and why should they?

They are either retired or work outside of the county. If they have kids, they likely attend private schools. They fulfill their recreational needs at the nearby country clubs and shop in Richmond or New York or wherever.

They use almost no county services. Their garbage goes elsewhere, they use Henrico public libraries and some subdivisions even have their own automatic electronic defibrillators to compensate for a dwindling fire-rescue volunteer corps.

Things are different in the rest of the county.

Public schools are the only opportunity most kids who live west of Manakin Road have to get the tools to help them participate in the American Dream.

The population of Goochland, like that of the rest of the country, is aging. Many of the people moving here are retired, passing through on the way to the cemetery. They have no family ties to the county and have little interest in what goes on here. They just want low real estate taxes and lots of rural character, whatever that is.

Goochlanders whose names can be found on local voting rolls and land records for decades if not centuries, are getting lost in the shuffle. They stand to benefit most from economic development. Better school funding to give their children a leg up in life is only a part. They’ll be able to stay here well into the future and pass their family heritage along to future generations.

Although the supervisors brag about having the lowest property tax rate in the region, as property values skyrocketed, tax bills exploded.

Some supervisors talk about length about discerning the difference between wants and needs as relates to county services, which is an important part of their job.

The people who will suffer most as the result of the budget cuts are those least able to compensate for any loss of services.

Goochland needs a wide range economic development throughout the county just to stay even.

Revenues from economic development, be it a truck stop or a corporate headquarters campus, fund the things that build community including soccer fields, libraries and parks.

Truck stop developers are less likely to demand the financial incentives that major corporations require. This puts revenue in the county’s pocket much sooner.

The county’s record with attracting corporate headquarters is spotty at best. When Motorola was on the horizon, the board acted as though its economic development work was over instead of just begun.

It’s hard to understand the resistance to preparing the Oilville interchange for significant commerce. The area in question is very small. The proposed wastewater treatment plant has relatively small capacity, which will limit the spread of development. Best of all, the plant will be owned and controlled entirely by the county. None of those pesky agreements with outside entities that plague other county utility schemes.

There will be some start up costs, but the bulk of the expense will be borne by the property owners.

Repeated efforts by the supervisors who represent the western portion of the county to quash development at Oilville are incomprehensible.

How exactly do they expect the county to pay for amenities their constituents want and need? These items include a fire-rescue station near Sandy Hook, which will probably be staffed by costly career personnel, a new community center and a continuation of the funding policies that have dramatically improved Goochland schools.

Goochland needs to get serious about attracting businesses large and small. Western supervisors who stand in the way of economic development for petty personal reasons should be ashamed of themselves.

Their actions penalize only their constituents.

The objections to development at Oilville have little to do with the project on the table and everything to do with a juvenile power struggle among grown up men who ought to know better.

Monday, October 12, 2009

What a difference a day makes

Playing to the home crowd

On Monday, October 5, District 5 supervisor Jim Eads continued his fine tradition of holding town meetings at the Manakin Fire-Rescue Station to discuss local government issues and chat with his constituents. He began the practice after he first took office almost 10 years ago.

Eads is to be congratulated for holding these meetings. The other four supervisors should follow suit to encourage greater interest in county government.

With an eye on the clock, Eads kept the agenda moving so that his constituents could get home to watch football.

The meeting, which featured remarks by the new county administrator Rebecca T. Dickson, was cordial, informative and an excellent example of community spirit.

Dickson, giving what has become her introductory stump speech, briefly listed some of the challenges that the county faces in the near future.

Goochland, she said, like everywhere else in America, will face trying fiscal times as the floundering economy works its way out of recession. Dickson estimated that the county could face a budget shortfall of more than $5 million in the 2011 fiscal year, about the same in percentage terms as neighboring jurisdictions.

Dickson reported that she and county staff are working very hard to get their arms around the problems that beset the Tuckahoe Creek Service District.

Eads glossed over the whole TCSD mess stating that the check fiasco was a very unfortunate, and concluded episode. No criminal activity was uncovered so the county should move forward, he said.

Eads reiterated the county philosophy that the TCSD is paid for by those who benefit from it, which is sort of true. In fact, the following afternoon, the supervisors voted to loan the TCSD $3 million from the general fund to pay for a water line, located entirely in Henrico County. It would have been nice to have that money available to help offset the coming budget shortfalls.

The $63 million in bonds that funded construction of TCSD infrastructure are general obligation bonds taken out in the name of Goochland County.

That means every taxpayer is on the hook should the byzantine debt service scheme currently in place default and plunge the county’s credit rating to the basement.

Eads also fanned the fire of a sore point among his constituents who took matters into their own hands to negotiate a municipal water supply from Henrico. This occurred about 30 years ago when homeowners in the Lower Tuckahoe Community were told that the county would not help them find an alternative to an inadequate private water system.

Eads believes that a fairness disparity exists between people in the Courthouse and those along River Road who pay the same water rates.

Public utilities in Courthouse Village are provided by agreements between the county and the two nearby Department of Corrections facilities. The county ran water and sewer lines from the prisons to the high school, county administration building and J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College campus. Due to limited capacity, some, not all, property owners along those lines were permitted to connect and charged hefty fees to do so. They did not initiate installation utility lines as did River Road residents.

In response to questions about building a new elementary school, Eads believes that new schools and parks should be funded only by bond issues approved by a ballot referendum. Because Eads’ constituents tend to be either empty nesters or send their children to private schools, their only interest in county education policy is the impact of the school budget on their property taxes.

If the voters indicate approval to financing new parks and schools, said Eads, the county should buy a large tract of land, perhaps on Rt. 250, to build a major recreational complex.

Although there was no legal requirement for the supervisors to secure voter approval when they created the TCSD, given the serious threat to the county’s rural nature posed by intense development, there was certainly a moral obligation for the board to seek the taxpayers’ blessing incurring a debt greater than the entire annual county budget.

So far, development in the TCSD has been disappointing. Eads laid the blame for this entirely on the bad economy, even though development in the TCSD was dead in the water when the regional economy was in hyper expansion mode.

One gentleman waved a copy of the next day’s board meeting agenda and asked why the supervisors attempted to address at least 14 items during a three-hour meeting.

Too bad he was unable to attend the next day’s board meeting where another Jim Eads seems to have been in attendance.

This one took little heed of the new streamlined board procedures, which he strongly supported.

Eads wrested control of the meeting from board chairman District 1 supervisor Andrew Pryor during an informational presentation about options for commercial development at the Oilville Interstate 64 interchange made by Don Charles director of community development.

Continuing a long held objection to development at the Oilville interchange, various iterations of which have been on the drawing board for a least 10 years, Eads interrupted Charles and badgered and bullied a landowner who is seeking ways to work with the county to develop his land.

Eads has every right and obligation to ask questions.
However, his comments and their tone, suggest that his only agenda was to derail efforts at creating a mutually beneficial partnership between landowners and the county.

He feigned ignorance of options for providing limited wastewater treatment at the interchange, independent of the VDOT participation that was featured in earlier development plans, even though they had been vetted by the new county engineer.

Eads’ interruptions consumed at least 40 minutes of the three and one-half hour meeting, leaving even less time for other agenda items.

To keep board meetings from degenerating into time consuming rants, workshops should be conducted outside the regular meeting agenda.

Important issues like development of the Oilville interchange deserve thoughtful and public discussion by the supervisors. In a perfect world, these discussions would be held in the evening to permit attendance by the greatest number of citizens possible.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Who ya gonna call?

The reality of emergency response in Goochland

Kudos to the residents of the Parke at Manakin Woods for turning a scary episode into a wake up call for positive action.

When Ed Stover became ill at a neighborhood social gathering on Saturday, September 26,the hostess called 911 and expected an ambulance to arrive from nearby Manakin Company 1 in a few minutes.

An ambulance arrived, from Centerville Company 3, following several subsequent calls to 911 more than 30 minutes after the initial call.

Parke residents were understandably upset.

They believed that, because they lived near a fire-rescue station, they could have EMS at their doors in a few minutes. Located at the corner of Rt. 6 and Hermitage Road The Parke at Manakin Woods is about five years old. While about 60 percent of its residents are over 60 years of age, 15 children including baby triplets also live there.

On Thursday, October 1, Parke residents filled the Company 1 meeting room to discuss the incident. Goochland Fire-Rescue chief Ken Brown, Deputy Chief-EMS D. E. “Eddie” Ferguson, Jr. and Maj. Don Bewkes from the Goochland Sheriff’s Office, which handles all emergency dispatch, spent more than two hours explaining what happened and how fire-rescue and law enforcement services work in Goochland.

A statement by Bewkes, “Goochland isn’t like where you came from,” says it all.

Ferguson began the meeting by giving detailed background on Goochland Volunteer Fire-Rescue. Pay close attention to the name of the organization. Having both EMS and fire under the same roof maximizes a limited available volunteer pool and encourages cross training to increase effectiveness.

Goochland Volunteer Fire-Rescue is well-equipped and has a proud history of achievement. Goochland EMS has been recognized for excellence in Virginia several times since the start of the decade.

County EMS providers are well-trained in aggressive life saving techniques, Ferguson explained.

However, Parke residents understandably wanted to know why it took so long for an ambulance to reach their community on September 26, especially after Ferguson stated that one of the busiest times for EMS calls is early on Saturday evening.

Parke residents were appalled to learn that there was no crew on duty at Company 1 that night. A crew had been on duty there until 6 p.m.

To further complicate matters, many Company 1 EMS volunteers are college students who returned to school in the fall depleting the supply of available volunteers there.

Company 3 did have a crew, but it was engaged with another EMS call involving law enforcement. Parke residents seemed to have overlooked the possibility that there might be other emergency calls in progress.

The heavy rain caused other Company 3 volunteers, who were not on duty, to go to their station and stand by in case they were needed. This EMS crew responded to the Parke.

Unfortunately, they made a wrong turn, which further delayed their arrival. Parke residents questioned why it took more than 10 minutes for the ambulance to get to them from Company 3.

Bewkes said that driving a large vehicle on narrow two lane deer infested roads in heavy rain with limited visibility required prudence rather than speed.

Ferguson explained that scheduling volunteers to provide coverage on weekends is an ongoing challenge.

As of April 1, the county’s first paid fire-rescue providers began work. The paid staff provides three two person crews for daytime weekday hours, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and one late night crew from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. from Sunday to Thursday in the western end of the county.

At all other times volunteers respond to emergency calls and respond to most of the thousands of EMS incidents logged in Goochland.

All sheriff’s cruisers are equipped with automatic electronic defibrillators (AEDs) and deputies are trained in their use. Deputies, who monitor all dispatch calls, respond to EMS calls if they are nearby and not otherwise occupied.

That was not the case on September 26.

Bewkes explained that Goochland has two dispatchers, who handle both fire-rescue and law enforcement calls, on duty at all times.

The number of active EMS-only volunteers in Goochland, said Ferguson is 102, another 97 volunteers are cross-trained in both EMS and fire suppression skills. That’s 199 people to provide EMS coverage for all of the county’s approximately 300 square miles.

Active volunteers are required to be on duty for a minimum of 48 hours per month. That’s on top of working, family responsibilities and sleep.

Training required to become a basic life support (BLS) EMT is 121 hours of class time, practical skills education and precepting with experienced EMTs. The county has 134 BLS providers. Hours needed for advance life support training increase with the level of skill. EMT-paramedics, there are 14 among the Goochland volunteer corps, complete an additional 1,000 hours of training and spend many more hours honing their skills. That’s all before they can get on an ambulance and take care of people. All providers must past the same state certification tests as career people in other jurisdictions.

Some volunteers chose to become ambulance drivers. This requires successful completion of a CPR class the emergency vehicle operator’s course (EVOC,)which takes about 22 hours of class and practical education.

Many county EMS providers respond to calls from home, if they live close enough to their stations to respond in a timely manner. During times of expected increase in emergency calls, including the snowstorm on March 1, many volunteers report to their stations and stay there until conditions improve. A significant number of volunteers at both Manakin and Centerville do not even live in Goochland.

In short, EMS, like law enforcement, is a very manpower intense service.

Even if all stations are manned, a multi-vehicle traffic crash can take several ambulances out of the county for up to three hours. The advent of Rt. 288 had increased the number of wrecks that county EMS crews handle. Often, the patients from those incidents are transported to the VCU hospital in downtown Richmond.

Time and distance are major factors in response time in the county. Goochland has relatively few roads and they are often narrow and winding.

Parke residents wanted to help by raising money. One cited a recent piece of fatuous journalism that reported Goochland having the highest per capita income in America.

“If we are such a rich county, why not get all of those wealthy people to pitch in and pay for more coverage?” one man asked. He would be surprised to know that in most of the county he is considered to be one of those rich people.

Bewkes informed him that because Goochland’s population is small, about 20,000, it takes a very small number of wealthy people, he estimated 20 families, to skew the average to paint a misleading picture.

Calls for volunteers from Brown and Ferguson seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Paid fire-rescue is a very expensive proposition. The cost for the current paid providers is at least $600,000 per year.

All real estate taxes collected in Goochland fund county schools. All other services are funded through fees and other receipts. (See Goochland’s budget at the county website

Parke residents discussed purchasing an AED for their neighborhood and sponsoring CPR classes. Those are both excellent ideas. Everyone should learn the basics of CPR.

The incident illustrates how little most people in Goochland understand how things work here.

Bewkes suggested that Parke residents participate in the annual sheriff’s academy to get a close look at law enforcement in Goochland. Visit the sheriff’s website at to learn more about local law enforcement.

Goochland is blessed with outstanding fire-rescue volunteers who give tremendous amounts of time and talent to leave the comfort of home and family to go in harm’s way to save lives and protect property. Volunteers come from every walk of life and have a strong commitment to community service.

Get to know your local volunteers. Look for activities at stations to commemorate Fire Prevention Week.

The professionalism of the Goochland Sheriff’s Department is among the best in the state. Our deputies are well-trained sworn officers dedicated to providing the best public service possible.

One of the trade offs that you make for the peace, privacy and relative low taxes in Goochland is fewer public services. Law enforcement and fire-EMS are two examples. Perhaps one of the biggest threats to Goochland’s way of life is new residents who want Goochland to be just like where they came from only different.

Self-reliance is a vital part of rural character.

Fire-rescue volunteers must be at least 16 years of age, in good health, able to pass a criminal background check and have a good driving record. Volunteers come from all walks of life and it’s a great way to get to know the wonderful people of Goochland. Volunteers are always needed. Training is free to members of one of the county’s six companies. Visit the website at for more information.